A bunch of public policy and urban policy analysts got together on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., yesterday to discuss the problems with urban transit. It's no great secret that public transit is inefficient, expensive, and wasteful. In fact, American cities have spent nearly $100 billion building rails over the past 40 years, Cato Institute Senior Fellow Randal O'Toole reports, and average projects go about 40 percent over budget while dramatically underperforming on ridership and revenue.
Yesterday at the Cato event, O'Toole analyzed a popular alternative to buses—streetcars—and concluded in his newest analysis that money would be better spent improving existing modes of transport, through things like street repair and traffic coordination. (O'Toole has written a series of policy analyses tearing various aspects of public transit to shreds.)
The prospect of saving the system by handing major components of it off to private industry is appealing, but according to Florida State University's Sam Staley—a Reason contributor and one of yesterday's speakers—the entire transit model is so broken that even full privatization would not be enough to keep mass transit as we know it from spiraling into decay and financial ruin. He clarified after the briefing that even in the best of circumstances, mass transit only has about two decades left before it completely crumbles and burns.
"There will be ashes," Staley says. "There may even be some charred remains."
At this point, trying to open transit to competition may wind up harming the overall cause of privatization. Policy makers might even become more hostile to free market solutions, Staley says, if they witness an industry collapse just as free market solutions are finally implemented. The best hope for mass transit in the long term may be to wait out the inevitable crash, and then hope to find something useful among the charred remains.